You’ve seen her everywhere, from those cell phone commercials to the Fat Actress reruns you find yourself watching on PAX at 1 a.m., but you never knew she was from Columbus. It’s true, though. That hilarious, attractive blonde who makes fun of Willis and Urkel on VH1’s I Love the… series is our homie. Actually, she’s from Worthington. More specifically, she’s from Colonial Hills.
Now Rachael Harris is one of the hardest working little names in show biz. We say little name, because we reckon that, even though you immediately recognize her face from Curb Your Enthusiasm or Kicking and Screaming or any of countless commercials, her name wasn’t on the tip of your tongue. Well, now it is.
Harris has carved herself a niche in Hollywood. She’s built the kind of showbiz career that effectively renders trips to the grocery store or the vet completely paparazzi free. Which leaves her free to concentrate on being funny and getting her characters right, rather than being overwhelmed with her celebrity.
After a formal education in Theater at Otterbein, she moved to New York City to get started in show business, but it wasn’t until she began to hone her improv and comedy skills at the Groundlings in L.A. that she really began to get work. The writing and improv training she received, coupled with the good friends and colleagues she met while she was there, helped open doors for Harris, and now you can’t channel surf for more than ten minutes before you land on something she’s done, whether it is a commercial for mouthwash or one of the Christopher Guest parody movies, like Best In Show or A Mighty Wind.
Her newest project, Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration, comes out in late September. We recently had a chance to sit and talk with Harris, so we asked her a little about how it is she made her way into one of the most competitive businesses in the world. But first, we thought we would ask a couple questions about home, to kind of loosen us up.
What is the first thing you like to do when you get back to Columbus?
I love to drive through Olde Worthington at Christmas time. I will never not love that queer Nativity scene. My husband loves Buckeyes… I’m not kidding. When he discovered the Buckeye he lost his mind. He has to go to Anthony Thomas for Buckeyes, which is ironic, because he’s not a Buckeye fan.
What do you consider to be indigenous Ohio food?
Graeter’s is more Cincinnati. Donato’s Pizza is really good. It’s always fun to go to the Villa Nova, I love that place.
What was your first role?
The first thing I ever did was… I was a hot box dancer in Guys and Dolls in high school. No, the very first thing I did was in sixth grade. I really credit Ms. Sterns at Colonial Hills elementary school with giving me that first taste of applause. I always wanted to be creating characters and acting like other people. When I was younger, I did a lot more singing, and I am so grateful for the high drama of musical theater, because it served me so well when I did comedy. I feel very lucky, because I’ve always known what I wanted to do and I’m getting paid to do it. I think other girls just want to be able to pay their bills. They just want to be able to have a normal life with a normal house.
What is your most recent role?
I play Parker Posey’s girlfriend in For Your Consideration, the new Christopher Guest movie, and when we are not in the movie, y’know, like backstage, we’re pals – we’re very serious about acting.
How did you avoide being brainwashed by Hollywood.
I’m not big on being skinny. It’s not my thing and I refuse to do it. I’m big on being fit. I used to think I had to look a certain way in order to make money, then, low-and-behold, I started working like crazy as soon as I stopped buying into the “oh my god, I gotta be super-skinny” mentality. I look like a real person, which is why I think I get hired. I thought my Midwestern looks would be a disadvantage, but now I’m comfortable with myself and I realize that the thing that gets you hired is when you really know who you are.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that you were not you?
Auditions. When I go to an audition and I feel like I have to look a certain way. For example, there was this character I was auditioning for who was supposed to be kinda tough and a little street smart. And I was in the audition and I thought, y’know, I don’t believe this, I feel like I’m a good actor, but at the end of the day, it’s really who you are. I thought, y’know, I wouldn’t hire me for this.
What’s your dream gig?
I think it would be to continue to do more in the Christopher Guest movies. I’d love to do some more characters. Oh, but there’s so many directors that I love. I love Sidney Pollack. I never started out thinking I was just going to do comedy, so there’s a whole other genre I’d like to do. Oh, crap, did I just say genre?!?
Sorry. But, y’know, I would love to do more serious stuff, too. I’d love a great dramatic role. Or, something off the beaten path, like Fargo or Rushmore. I’m not speaking in very good sound bites here. I just don’t want this to come around and bite me in the ass, y’know… “You said you wanted to do this…”
We’ll Photoshop in some sound bites later, don’t worry.
The thing is, I’m feeling like I have to button everything up like I do for VH1. You know, into sound bites.
How do they work those I Love the 70s shows anyway? Do they just lock you up in a room and make you watch crappy sitcoms all day, then ask you to come up with something funny about them?
What they do is give us a decade of questions. But, the best part of that job is that they send you a clip reel. So, you’ll have actual commercials from the 70s and shows like One Day at a Time. What’s really crazy about it is when you see Howard Cosell.
Would you like to do other television work?
I’ve always said that I would like to be on a well-written show with a great group of people and with my friends.
Like what do you consider a well-written show?
The West Wing. I love The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin is doing a new show. I wanted to be a part of that cast, because it is really well written, it’s funny, but it is very real. I like shows that are funny, but that can get very real, like the one-hour comedies… the serio-comedies?!?
Dramadies. I love them. I’m not so interested anymore in multi-camera comedy. Don’t get me wrong, if I got one of those, I’d love it, but I am much more interested in single-camera.
Like Arrested Development?
Arrested Development is one of my favorite shows. If I were to do a situation comedy, that is how I would do it. Of course, I’m addicted to Reality TV. It’s sad, because reality shows are putting all of my people out of work. But, I love The Apprentice. Why? I don’t know, but I do love The Apprentice.
When did you decide you were going to go for it and just be an actress?
I was doing an internship in college in a casting office in New York, and every desk had three-feet high stacks of headshots. And it wasn’t just one stack. Every desk had two or three stacks of actors, and it was just daunting. Then, when I left New York and was home and I was in that basement over on Colonial Avenue, in Colonial Hills, and I was terrified, and I thought: “I don’t want to be in my thirties and say, ‘what would have happened.’” So, I decided to pursue it, and what followed was three grueling years in New York with no work and no prospects. Well, I was the best hostess in Manhattan. I was a good hostess, and I ate a lot of Tasty Delight. It is so good, but it is not nutritious. But I think I thought I really had a shot at it when I got into the Groundlings.
What was the first thing you booked?
It was a Listerine commercial. All you did was see us swishing around. I was so nervous. It was like I was doing the monologue from Macbeth. And all I was doing was swishing Listerine in my mouth. Well, it was water. If it were Listerine, my mouth would have fallen off.
What impact did you think doing commercials would have on your career?
A lot of actors don’t like to do commercials, but if you don’t want to wait tables and you want a good income… I got really lucky, because a lot of my commercials were situational spots that were about the product. I didn’t have to sell the product. They were like little scenes.
What about the impact of your experience with the Groundlings?
Getting into the Groundlings was great, because I got to do a lot of writing. I wrote a lot of my own material, so people could see my point of view, and if casting people came to the shows, they could see: “Oh, that’s what she does. I know how to cast her.” I don’t think I would be working really, if I hadn’t been in the Groundlings.
What do you think you have learned from different people and experiences and taken with you from role to role?
I got from Christopher Guest that this is supposed to be fun and we should be having a really good time. And to trust your instincts. He just expects you to do it and you have to do it or not. Working on Fat Actress, that character was really kind of naughty and fun. I loved how not serious that show was. I got a lot from Brenda Hampton. She said the biggest mistake that actors make is just taking whatever comes. She said, just make sure not to settle. And also, I’ve learned that if you make out with the director, it really helps a lot.